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Terrorism: The Role of Law Enforcement

Author: Edward J. Tully


Long before the events of September 11, 2001, the United States, and many other countries of the world, had been victimized by the scourge of Islamic terrorism. Simplistically, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the subsequent mindless gerrymandering by the British and French of the mid-east into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine is the root cause of the problem we now face. In 1948, the United Nations created Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians. This action enraged the Islamic world and they vowed to destroy Israel. Several unsuccessful wars against Israel, the humiliation of defeat, and the persistent Palestinian refugee problem, fostered an environment of hatred by Islamists against Israel, and its primary ally, the United States.

Since 1948, the anger, humiliation, and frustration of some Muslims have led them to subscribe to a radical form of Islam that they believed justified terrorism as a means to defend their beliefs and aspirations. For the past thirty-five years, they have used their beliefs and the Palestinian problem as justification for their actions against Israel and Western interests throughout the world. During this recent period, terrorist organizations, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas, al Qaeda and Hezbollah, among others, emerged and have expanded their reign of terror. This expansion includes opposition to the ruling parties in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, the settling of century old scores between Sunni and Shi'a versions of Islam, and a widening of their rage against Israel, the United States, and various countries in Western Europe. The anger of the Islamic world has further increased because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the emerging sectarian violence between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, Iran's primary support of Hezbollah terrorists, and the general disdain many Muslims, such as the Taliban and adherents of Whabbism, have for our "hedonistic" lifestyles.

The bottom line is that the conflict between, and within, the Islamic civilization, and ours, is extremely complicated, poorly understood, and likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Thus, it is prudent for law enforcement executives to assume that this conflict will continue to produce acts of terrorism throughout the world for a considerable period. This raises the question as to what is the proper role of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the North America to prevent acts of either domestic or international terrorism.

The Role of Federal Agencies

Legislators have given federal law enforcement agencies in the United States, and their counterparts in Canada, jurisdiction over those violations of law having to do with acts of terrorism. While this jurisdiction does not necessarily supersede state and local laws covering similar violations, most state and local law enforcement agencies have deferred to the federal role. Clearly, federal agencies have resources unmatched by local and state law enforcement agencies, in terms of finances, manpower, and technology to conduct world wide, and internal, operations against terrorist organizations. Since 2001, these agencies have done a remarkable job and deserve considerable credit for preventing numerous terrorist acts. Combined with various military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, national agencies, such as the RCMP, FBI, CIA, and the National Security Agency, have disrupted, infiltrated, intercepted communications, and diminished the financial resources of terrorist groups. In doing so, they have weakened some terrorist organizations and disrupted their abilities to strike at will. As a result of these activities, and other unknown factors, North America has not experienced a successful terrorist attack since 2001. Unfortunately, terrorist organizations have not disappeared, but have re-grouped, dispersed, and actually multiplied in numbers. In my mind, it has become an even more difficult problem, which, in turn, suggests that our overall current anti-terrorism efforts are not perfect and need to be tweaked to make our environment even more difficult to penetrate. It should be understood that it will not be possible to achieve perfection in protecting, but it is possible to make it far more difficult for the terrorist to succeed.

The most significant flaw in our strategy is relying, solely, on federal law enforcement agencies to gather intelligence on terrorist groups, conduct counter-terrorist activities, and investigate acts of terror when, and should, they occur. Unfortunately, federal law enforcement organizations do not have a direct "ownership" of our various cities. Nor, may I add, is there any level of accountability on their part when they fail to perform adequately. Both "ownership" and accountability are extremely important as motivators in the matter of duty. It was "ownership" and accountability, which sent the New York firefighters and police officers into the World Trade Center. The lack of "ownership" and accountability was best illustrated when no federal agencies were censured, or employees, disciplined over the failure of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prevent the two bombings of the World Trade Center. Another example would be the federal response to the widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, woeful at best, primarily because the officials in charge of the federal response did not have "ownership," or accountability, regarding the problems in New Orleans, Louisiana, or Mississippi. It was not their homes, families, and possessions that were in danger. Of course, this is a facet of human nature that they could correct if they knew their jobs were on the line based on their performance.

Let me state this matter more bluntly. If you are the Chicago Police Department Superintendent and are responsible for protecting Chicago against all those who violate the laws of that city it is difficult to imagine that you have rely solely on federal agencies to supply you with information on a timely basis about a terrorist possible threat. You're are a bit more lucky if you have a federal Joint Terrorism Task Force in your area, but you still will not have any control over the flow of critical decision-making information. That flow of information and decision-making will remain in Washington, D. C. I am not arguing this is a horrible situation, as it may not be. It may work out well, but in my opinion, it is a weakness in our overall strategy that needs to be improved. Ray Kelly, Commissioner, New York City recognized this problem and has dispatched officers to liaison with authorities in London, Paris, Rome, and other European countries about potential future attacks directed at New York City. While some may consider this a symbolic gesture, it is, nonetheless, a powerful message to federal authorities that New York City will no longer completely sub-contract their security into the hands of agencies in Washington, D. C., nor should we.

A second minor flaw in our strategy is our failure to involve more actively the over 650,000 local law enforcement officers, and an even larger number, of private security personnel, in the United States in the search, for both domestic and international terrorists. Considering the number of contacts these officers have daily with the public, it is reasonable to conclude that if the officers were well schooled in what signs to look for during each contact, the results would be fruitful. As you may recall it was a trooper who arrested Timothy McVeigh, a Custom's employee who alertly stopped a terrorist on his way to bomb the Los Angeles airport, and local police stopped several of the 9/11 hijackers for traffic violations, but were released when no incriminating information was available regarding their identity or intentions. It should also be noted that both state and local police officers have made countless stops involving the transportation of illegal substances based on information supplied to them on a continuing basis by the Drug Enforcement Agency. The FBI's Bomb Data Center and Homeland Security both have done some good work in keeping some of the first responders informed on various technical details concerning terrorists. Often this information is not passed along to the average cop on the street because the information is not relevant to their jobs. Nevertheless, as a member of the "team" you always want to know what is going on, relevant or not. The average cop doesn't need to know the composition of the letter bombs being found in London these days, on the other hand, it makes the officer feel like they are in the "know" when they talk to a neighbor, or a fellow officer. This builds "ownership" of the problem and a desire to be part of the solution. Later I will put forth for consideration some simple ways to rectify this omission.

The Terrorist

It is very difficult for most North Americans to understand the mind, motivation, or the reasoning behind radical Islamic terrorism. As a political tool, terrorism has yet to achieve measurable success. On the contrary, terrorism has brought great misery and disrepute to Muslims throughout the world. It has fractured the Islamic world to the point where it may take centuries to recover, if ever. Nonetheless, we should never regard those involved in terrorist acts as stupid. The Islamic terrorist is reasonably intelligent, resourceful, cunning, barbaric, ruthless, and thoroughly committed to the task assigned. Hatred of Israel and America motivates them as well as their treatment by the countries of Western Europe. They have a long list of grievances, some real, and some imagined. Nevertheless, they believe in their cause and they are fighting a war against us the only way they can. We should never underestimate them as they are technically proficient, patient, and willing to die as martyrs for the cause.

Considering the above, we can reasonably conclude, Islamic terrorists are still interested in exporting their acts of terror to North America. They can direct their attacks against a symbolic institution, such as Wall Street, various transportation systems, electric grid systems, or even shopping centers. Our environment is target-rich and virtually impossible to defend completely. The first line of defense is to keep terrorists out of the country. Secondly, we should assume that terror organizations have planted, or recruited, individuals in our society to carry out attacks when so directed to do so. Obviously, we should direct our law enforcement efforts in these areas. To date, our efforts have been successful. However, we must continue to assume that terrorists can strike anywhere in North America, at any time. While various institutions in New York, Washington D. C. or Las Vegas would seem to be prime targets, we cannot discount the fact that a terrorist event in Montreal, Salt Lake, or Peoria would have a significant impact.

Since 2002, the United States has directed enormous military efforts against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq with considerable success. Nonetheless, al Qaeda is still involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan and is directly involved in helping the Sunni's in Iraq continue their sectarian violence against the Shi'a population. The al Qaeda organizations are a derivative of a form of Islam called Whabbism. Whabbism is an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam that calls for all Westerners to be driven from the Mid East and the formation of strict Islamic rule throughout the region. You should note that persons claiming to be representatives of al Qaeda planned and executed recent terrorist incidents in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2006. Their most current plans, according to al Qaeda, revolve around the destruction of oil facilities in the Persian Gulf region. Thus, while al Qaeda has suffered significant losses in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its various organizations, and Whabbism, still flourish elsewhere. Either is quite capable of mounting, or bankrolling, significant terrorist operations against oil facilities, or any other target in the world.

Finally, whether the United States military withdraws from Iraq, or not, it seems most probable that the Mid East will devolve into chaos. None of the issues that have sparked violence in this area since 1948 has been resolved. Nor is it likely that any military operations, or diplomacy, will resolve them in the near term future. The Kurds want their own homeland, Turkey and Iran will resist. The Shi'a of Iraq backed by Iran, hope to gain political control of Iraq. The Sunni's of Iraq, backed by Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda, want desperately to avoid dominance by the Shi'a majority in Iraq. Palestine, Syria, and Iran want to destroy Israel and establish Shi'a control in Lebanon. Whether this descent into chaos will result in the increase of terrorism directed toward North America is hard to predict, but it is an assumption that we cannot ignore.

There are two other possibilities regarding violence in North America that which deserve our consideration. First, there is a possibility of sectarian violence breaking out in the United States between our Sunni and Shi'a populations. Relations between these two versions of Islam by the half million Arab Muslims in the United States are becoming more strained. We cannot tell whether the occasional acts of juvenile vandalism directed against one sect or the other will escalate into acts that are more serious. State and local law enforcement should closely monitor these situations.

Second, over the past year authorities have arrested members of a fledging terrorist group in Miami, prevented a young Muslim from planting grenades in a mall in Rockford, Illinois, and were forced to kill a young Muslim refugee from Bosnia who killed five individuals in a Salt Lake City mall. Whether the individuals involved in the above three matters should be classified as terrorists is immaterial. They represent, perhaps in the abstract, a "homegrown" aspect of terrorism.

Misdirected idealism has always been a hallmark of the young. In England and France, this idealism has begun to lead to social problems of a very serious nature. While this alienation seems not to have occurred in North America, it is a potential problem that requires both the talents of the educational system and law enforcement to control.

What Can We Do To Improve

In order to accomplish an increase in the flow of information to officers on the street each law enforcement organization should consider analyzing the demographics of their population, whether the geographic area served has target facilities or structures, and the availability of an officer to perform the duties of Terrorism Coordinator, most likely on a part time basis. The duties of the Terrorism Coordinator position would require the officer to ensure that other officers receive terrorism materials regularly, supply local private security officers with similar materials, and organize occasional roll call training sessions.

I further suggest that a policy be implemented to the effect that the Joint Terrorism Task Force thoroughly brief and allow the local chief of police, or sheriffs, to participate in the decision-making process concerning the conclusion of major anti-terrorism operations.

It should be underscored that the modest suggestions above are not for duplicating the role of the Joint Task Force. Rather it is a means by which increased collaboration between the entities involved can be achieved. Local officers and private security personnel should share information that requires additional, sophisticated, and ongoing investigation with the Task Force so that they can devote their special resources to the resultant investigation. Naturally, the above suggestions require the cooperation of either the FBI or the DEA. Both of these agencies have a long history of collaboration in the area of training with state and local law enforcement agencies and have a great deal of credibility with the law enforcement community. Whether this level of collaboration can be obtained, or not, depends on how the suggestions are put forth. Perhaps a combination of police organizations such as the IACP, Major Cities Chiefs, National Sheriff's Association, State Police Associations, or the Fraternal Order of Police, could consider sending proposals directly to the Director of the FBI, or the Administrator of the DEA, for their consideration and possible implementation.

Finally, there are many individuals within the law enforcement community who consider the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, in its present form, to have been a mistake. At present, this Department has 184,000 employees in a wide variety of agencies. As of this date, the Department has not distinguished itself in any facet of its work. Congress and the Executive Branch need to further discuss and debate this issue. For example, I have always argued it would make a great deal of sense to remove the Border Patrol from Homeland Security and make it an independent agency within the Treasury, or Justice Department. For far too long, the Border Patrol has been treated poorly. It began when it was a part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now as a part of Homeland Security. Border Patrol is an extremely important agency in the struggle against terrorism and needs to become independent of its surrounding bureaucracy to effectively police our borders without undue political influence. I would also argue that the United States Secret Service and the US Coast Guard should be removed from Homeland Security and returned to their independent status.

In all cases, an experienced law enforcement executive should be placed in charge of each agency. The idea that a judge, lawyer, or successful politician is best qualified to run a law enforcement agency has been proven to be without significant merit. Perhaps there was a time in our history when law enforcement agencies needed an executive from the outside to bring in fresh ideas and to regain the trust of the public, but those days are long past.

Private Security

Now there are roughly one and one half million individuals providing a wide variety of security functions for industry, banking, neighborhoods, housing projects, government facilities, nuclear facilities, and other numerous entities. They are represented by the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS) a worldwide organization of 35,000 security managers. Charlie Connolly, former Commissioner of Police in Yonkers, and Vice President in charge of security for Merrill-Lynch has long been an advocate of more extensive collaboration between law enforcement and the security industry. In a paper he delivered in Sun Valley, Connolly stated, "A sustainable partnership between the public and private sectors is imperative if we are to protect the essential elements of our economy and way of life, in agriculture, food production and distribution, water, communication, energy, health and drug services, telecommunication, transportation, banking and financial services, chemical and hazardous materials, and commercial sports centers. The list is endless! There will be no personal safety or economic vitality without a secure environment. That is the challenge for private security as well as the law enforcement community. Equally important is the transformation of law enforcement to lead in rethinking a systematic collaborative security response that will adapt to the world's new realities." He then asks the question, "What role does, or can, police leadership play in recognizing, recruiting, and developing-private security relationships?"

Unfortunately, the law enforcement community has not fully explored Mr. Connolly's rhetorical question. Nor has the private sector expressed an eagerness to engage in collaboration that is more extensive. Both sides seem to be content with the status quo, which is basically--you handle your problems and we will handle ours! Of course, when it comes to workplace, or schoolhouse violence, it becomes a different matter for both parties.

The solution to increasing collaboration between law enforcement and private security organizations is relatively simple. Occasional regional meetings between security managers and law enforcement executives, an electronic newsletter concerning terrorism generated by federal law enforcement for private security officers, and perhaps, a dedicated "hot" telephone lines between these indifferent entities would make a difference. Whatever simple things it takes to get increased collaboration between law enforcement and private security are well worth the efforts of both parties. It is, as Mr. Connolly has long suggested a matter of mutual interest and a solution that is long overdue.


It has been almost six years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the expected subsequent attacks have not occurred in North America. One of the many reasons for this is that law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada have made it more difficult for the terrorist to penetrate our environment. However, any analysis of the current situation in the Mid-East, or the Muslim world, must conclude increased terrorist activities throughout the world is a distinct and chilling possibility. A review of current terrorist activities in England, Russia, Spain, Germany, Indonesia, and France proves that terrorists are becoming more "homegrown" and their list of grievances has increased substantially. The suggestion that the terrorists will follow us here when we leave Iraq and Afghanistan is questionable, that they will attack our other interests worldwide is not. Keep in mind we have been involved with terrorism, directly or indirectly, for more than fifty years and it is most likely that worldwide terrorism continue for another fifty years. The success the terrorist achieves in North America will depend, in large measure, on how well law enforcement agencies and private security work together at the federal, state, and local level.

It is best to remember the fatwa signed by Osama bin Laden in February 1998 that stated, "By God's leave, we call on every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God's command to kill Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can." He, and his followers, mean to do just that. However, it might also be wise for radical Islamists to remember President Bush's statement of July 2, 2003, when he said of them, "Bring them on." Better yet, they should remember the words of Todd Beamer on American Flight 93, "Lets Roll!"

About Edward J. Tully
Ed Tully served as Special Agent of the FBI from 1962 to 1993. After retirement from the Bureau, he was the Major Cities Chiefs' Executive Director and the Executive Director of the National Executive Institute Associates until 2002. He has written numerous articles on the subject of law enforcement. You can reach him at 540-371-3084 or by email at